STUTTGART, Germany — U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he’s not ready to publicly discuss how a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would begin under a peace deal with the Taliban.
"Negotiations in some ways are still ongoing," he told reporters traveling with him to Europe.
"I don't want to say anything that gets in front of that or upsets that process," he said.
The Taliban on Tuesday defended their suicide bombing against an international compound in the Afghan capital that killed at least 16 people and wounded 119, almost all local civilians, just hours after a U.S. envoy said he and the militant group had reached a deal "in principle" to end America's longest war.
Esper said he planned to meet for dinner Thursday in Stuttgart with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to discuss Afghanistan and give him “a sense of where I think things are” in the push to close a peace deal.
Citing “sensitive negotiations,” Esper in the inflight interview declined to talk about specifics, such as the timing of an initial American troop pullout or, more broadly, his level of confidence that the Taliban would live up to their end of any peace agreement.
“The conflict continues on,” he said. “They are conducting attacks. The Afghans are conducting attacks. We’re supporting Afghan attacks. That’s why we think the best way forward — if we can get the right deal — is a political agreement that leads to a viable outcome.”
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad showed the draft of the U.S.-Taliban deal to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier this week , saying it only needs President Donald Trump’s approval. Khalilzad’s ninth round of talks with the militant group in Qatar ended over the weekend.
The top U.S. military officer said Wednesday it’s too early to talk about a full American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, injecting a cautionary note as U.S. peace talks with the Taliban appear to be near a final agreement.
The U.S. has between 13,000 and 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, nearly 18 years after it invaded in October 2001 to remove the Taliban from power. Trump said last week the troop total would be reduced to 8,600 initially, with further decisions to follow.
Esper is scheduled to meet with British defense officials in London on Friday and with French officials in Paris on Saturday. He said China and the security challenges it poses to the West is among the topics he intends to raise.